November 4th, 2008 – Rapture and hope
At the Speakeasy Bar and Restaurant in Luray, Virginia, we gathered to watch the returns; an oddball crew of local Democratic Party activists, campaign staffers, and twenty-something out-of-towners hunting swing states.
I was one of the latter. Single and underemployed, I came to Luray a week before the election. A friend inside the campaign had said the entire election could hinge on Virginia. I dug into my savings and bought a flight. Every day (button, clipboard, and pamphlets in hand), I walked precincts to remind supporters to get out and vote. Or rather, I drove precincts. In Page County, VA, supporters were spread so far apart that it made more sense to drive between them.
As beer flowed and nerves jangled, it gradually became clear to those adept at counting electoral votes that the country had cast their votes for unity and hope. But it wasn’t until Virginia was called for Barack Obama that the bar erupted with shouts and tears of joy. The party lasted for days. I’m sure you remember what it was like.
November 8th, 2016 – Struck Dumb
My wife hadn’t picked up her phone all day or answered texts, and I was getting worried enough to call into the offices of Harley Marine Services and ask if anyone knew where to find her. The response from her supervisor was: “She’s not with you?” Uh oh.
It turned out that Katie had been knocked on the head with an oversize Jenga piece during a work bonding activity, was rushed against her will to an urgent care center (she was in recovery from a traumatic brain injury), and left to find a way home on her own. Frustrated and angry, ignoring her phone, she walked the 8 miles from the urgent care center to Dan Savage’s election day extravaganza in downtown Seattle.
By the time I realized where she was, Donald Trump was starting to win weird states. Something was off. I walked inside and found her with some friends, relief washing over me. As I hugged her, they were calling Ohio for Trump. And then Florida. The disbelief lasted for days. I’m sure you remember what it was like.
I’ve told you the story of these two election nights because – as moments of tremendous emotional resonance in my life – they reveal a surprising amount about my place the world, and in the economy.
I’ve titled this piece “My Vote for Trump Explained” not because I literally checked the box for Trump rather than Hillary, but because — looking back now on my adult life — I can see a yawning chasm between the policy outcomes I imagined I was working toward, and the ones that I not only failed to prevent, but actually helped bring into being through my ignorance.
My inheritance — the foundation of my economic life — is one of mainstream, liberal Jewish values. My parents were union members, she a teacher and he a county administrator. I was taught to revere Martin Luther King, remember the Holocaust, shake my fist at corporate America, and vote blue. My parents showered me with love and taught me I could become whatever I wanted to be, with hard work. I never doubted that basic fact.
With this inheritance I made my way in the world. I chose jobs and activities that I thought would be fulfilling and help make the world a better place. “Liaison to the Jewish Community” for State Assemblymember Karen Bass. Picketer in support of striking union workers. Anti-sweatshop activist. And then CEO of Ethix Merch, connecting organizations with socially-responsible factories for their logo-items. I marched against the War in Iraq, cheered when someone threw a shoe at George W. Bush, cried during Katrina, and practically jumped out of my skin at the emergence of Barack Obama. Yes, I agreed with my whole heart. We can.
I now see these activities, though well-intentioned, as an outgrowth and a furtherance of my most valuable economic inheritance, which is my own privilege. My tears of joy at the election of Barack Obama, and my tears of bitterness at the election of Donald Trump, are both ironic in retrospect. If there were a woke St. Peter to weigh all my deeds, my attempts to dedicate my life to justice and equality would hardly be sufficient for passage through the pearly gates. Up against those endeavors — my activism, my precinct walking, my working hours — must be stacked my shameless and unceasing reliance on white, male privilege.
Running through and propping up all my endeavors has been a feeling quite like manifest destiny. Naturally, if I put in the hard work, the results would materialize. I would make a difference but (and this is the crucial bit) in so doing I would also take my rightful place in the economic order of things and in society. I’d have a stable job and a good salary. I’d have savings and promotions, and maybe someday even a Tesla to call my own. I’d get quoted in the newspapers and interviewed on NPR about my chosen area of expertise.
None of that entitlement is valid, I finally understand. It’s time to take a good, long soak in that understanding, so that it seeps into my work, my activism, my consumption, and my relationships. The country that elected Barack Obama is the same country (just in a different mood) that elected Donald Trump. It’s the country that made me feel loved and safe and secure, with access to “the dream.” It’s the country that makes so many others feel the opposite.
“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Yes, we can.
Part II – Movement Ecology
The “theory of change” and social movement ecology concepts are already helping me to think strategically about how stronger intersection between the shared-ownership and anti-sweatshop movement can strengthen both. I hope that — above all — the rest of this workshop will help me generate ideas to further this process.
REFLECTION SCRIPT 8/8:
The comments were incredibly helpful in maturing my thinking about how privilege intersects with my activism and identity, both inside and outside the workplace.
As just one example, Philip astutely drew my attention to my use of past tense in referring to the US as a country that “made me feel loved and safe and secure, with access to “the dream.”
This comment caused me to sit with the question: do I still feel all of those things about the US? I think the answer is that I’m stuck at a pivotal moment in between awareness and action. I am conscious that when systemic inequalities are present that I am benefiting from, those benefits are problematic. I benefit from them every day. I DO feel safe and secure, by and large. But the fact of the structural injustices means I simply can’t justify continued enjoyment of my privileges without working quite urgently and seriously for structural change so that all may receive those same privileges.
What does it mean to work against racism and other forms of discrimination “urgently and seriously.” How much is enough? Which privileges must be shared, and which must be forfeited? To what extent is it morally permissible to enjoy leisure time? That’s the part I haven’t quite worked out yet. Week 1 of the workshop is pushing me to craft my answers.